Most, if not all people familiar with German luxury cars, will recognize both Mercedes-Benz and BMW‘s entry-level C-Class and 3 Series sedans. What those people might not see is how quickly the baby Benz and Bimmer lines are changing to meet both customer and emissions demands.
Both automakers offered a refreshed look at the segment this year, Mercedes with the 2012 C250 and BMW with its 328i. The common theme here is shrinking engines with forced induction to offer a combination of fuel efficiency and the power luxury buyers expect.
While both cars deliver on those fronts, there will be a clear winner between the two, at least for anyone concerned with spirited driving. Mercedes crunched its engine down to a 1.8-liter turbocharged inline four with direct injection for this year. It makes 201 horsepower and 229 lb-ft of torque. The C250 also manages 21 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, solid numbers when you consider this car is at its most powerful during higher rpms, which will happen on the highway where it feels smooth and comfortable.
|Vehicle||2012 Mercedes C250 Sedan||Advantage||2012 BMW 328i Sedan|
|Engine||1.8L I4||328i||2.0L I4|
|Fuel Economy||21 MPG city / 31 MPG hwy||328i||23 MPG city / 33 MPG hwy|
|Transmission||7-Speed Automatic||328i||6-Speed Manual or 8-Speed Automatic|
|Front Seat Head Room||37.1 in.||328i||40.3 in.|
|Front Seat Leg Room||41.7 in.||328i||42 in.|
BMW, on the other hand, offers entry-level buyers a car well in line with its “Ultimate Driving Experience” philosophy. With a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine that makes a more substantial 240 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, the Bavarian car simply overpowers the Benz. Despite the extra strength, the 328i also gets better mileage with 23/33 mpg city/highway.
Unfortunately for the C250 its engine feels less than luxurious with a sometimes crude-sounding engine while the BMW is smooth and powerful. What’s worse, the Mercedes mill doesn’t feel nearly as punchy as its BMW rival.
That punchy feeling will be even more pronounced in the BMW with its standard 6-speed manual where Mercedes only offers a 7-speed automatic, which further dulls its driving feel. Optional on the BMW, and helping it’s fuel economy numbers, is an 8-speed automatic.
One area Mercedes fans will no doubt cheer about is the exterior styling. Anyone who appreciates the more angular, sharper look that started in 2006 will without question feel the same about this car.
Never one to be left out at a party, BMW also restyled its latest, though the change isn’t overly dramatic. This year the headlights reach in to touch the double kidney grille, leaving the car looking almost cross-eyed. Staring at this car head-on is almost like looking at someone who hasn’t cleaned the sleep out of their eyes. A more muscular-looking hood with subtle ridges give an organic yet understated look of power that actually works quite nicely.
Especially with luxury cars, the interior is equally as important as a stylish body, something both brands stake their reputations on and execute extremely well. Thankfully, neither car is a departure from that tradition. Mercedes’ C250 offers the quality of interior trim you would expect from a German manufacturer, with well-bolstered, comfortable seats, which is also true of the BMW. True to their brands, the Mercedes is more conservative, the BMW more Spartan.
Both cars offer an LCD display featuring Mercedes’ MBRACE and BMW’s iDrive systems respectively. They work well, but Mercedes’ system is starting to look dated, which is tough to swallow considering that this really is a refreshed car. Once maligned, iDrive is now the undisputed leader in easy-to-use in-car telematics.
Either choice will offer a luxurious ride with available safety and convenience features like lane departure warning, blind spot assistance and more (albeit at a premium). Mercedes is also offering its alertness assistance technology that detects drowsiness and attempts to wake or alert the driver.
BMW is offering the 328i chock full of new features that weren’t available previously, like a self-parking system, though they carry a premium price tag. Both cars also offer iPod integration and the ability to sync with a cell phone via Bluetooth for hands-free calling.
There’s no disputing that both Mercedes and BMW build impressive luxury vehicles for every segment currently entered. Priced at $35,775 to start, the BMW offers a much more engaging driver’s car that will be comfortable and entertaining. For a starting $34,800, the Mercedes-Benz C250 sedan offers the mellower luxo experience, though the engine doesn’t quite live up to the brand’s identity.
With such similar pricing, the final decision will between the Mercedes’ handsome and more mature luxury experience, or the less-attractive BMW’s more engaging drive.